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United States Foreign Commitments

Life is full of commitments.  Some are legal, others are emotional.  In foreign policy and international relations, commitments come in the form of treaties and non-binding agreements.  In the United States, treaties require Senate approval while non-binding agreements operate in a grey zone.  During the Obama Administration, both the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Accord were considered non-binding agreements and thus, the White House argued did not need to be submitted to Congress for approval.  Not surprisingly, Congress disagreed.

We should have a discussion about non-binding agreements and executive authority; President Obama pursued actions to reopen Cuba, to de-nuclearize Iran, and complete a global climate agreement largely without congressional consent because he would never get it under a Republican majority.  An argument could be made, as I do, that Republicans during the Obama era would have voted against a federal holiday celebrating Ronald Reagan if the idea had come from the man in the White House.  As a result, the President pursued these actions that may have pushed the boundaries of his executive authority.   Other administrations have done similar stretches and Congress does need to do the job of oversight.  By that same token, when obstruction gets in the way of the public good, we risk national security and public safety.

But regardless of consent and approvals, America must keep its word.  Imagine your own life and what a failure to meet a commitment means to those who count on you.  Whether it is a child, school or employer, most people feel compelled to follow through on commitments.  They do so, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because to not has ramifications.

In business and professional life, similar rules exist.  When you accept a loan from a bank you pay it back.  Otherwise, banks will no longer lend to you and that could very well impact your business and professional life.  If you fail to provide your employees with basic acceptable working conditions, your ability to hire quality talent may very well be affected especially during a tight labor market.  We must take all of these factors into consideration, regardless of the situation when evaluating our commitments.

The United States government is no different and in fact, one would argue as I do that the stakes are even higher particularly when it comes to international agreements.  Throughout the campaign, President Trump made it clear that he would pull back from our international obligations and treaties but at the same time was obviously ill-informed about what those agreements were and the impact disengagement would have on the world and on the American people.

We should be alarmed at the number of agreements and commitments that Trump is denigrating and from which we are actively backing way.  Already in his short time in the White House, in addition to all the other controversies, he has done the following:

  • Announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, which notably would be effective the day after the 2020 Presidential election.  So we have a chance at reversing this colossal mistake by electing someone who puts climate science ahead of the fossil fuel industry (and himself).
  • Enacted restrictions to those traveling to Cuba in an attempt to reverse the Obama era’s lifting of the decades-old failed Cuban embargo.  Experts predict that these restrictions will merely help the Cuban state and hurt small businesses.
  • Refused to endorse Article 5 during his address to NATO after campaigning against the post-war alliance that has come to symbolize what a successful collective security agreement can do to ward off threats.  Originally set up as a defense against the Soviet Union, now it has realigned its mission to protect against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyber warfare.  Article 5 is the mutual aid commitment; when one member is attacked, it is considered an attack on all.  It has only been invoked once – after 9/11 – and is the key provision around which all other articles depend.  Without Article 5, the NATO agreement is toothless.
  • Threatened to pull out of NAFTA and has come close to doing so until his Secretary of Agriculture (or perhaps it was his economic advisor Gary Cohn), showed him an electoral map and explained how much the Plains states benefited from trade with Mexico and Canada (the states that voted for him).  Now we are “renegotiating,” although I continue to hear reports that Trump has called for tariffs against our southern neighbors.
  • Announced (or threatens) to pull out of trade pact with South Korea at exactly the moment North Korea is firing off missiles.  Just a note:  Whether the South Korean trade deal is good or bad for American consumers is not be the question.  The purpose of it was to solidify the U.S. – South Korean relationship – the relationship – which has allowed our military to maintain a very active presence on the Korean peninsula.  The South Korean trade agreement is as much about South Korean security and the United States power in Asia than it is about importing cheap electronics and exporting grain (although Americans like that too).

Now we are on the precipice of another bad decision, at the exact moment we need the world to trust in America’s commitments.

Why do you care?

Unless it is terrorism, in the modern era, no one seems to vote based on a candidate’s foreign policy positions.  While I may understand the rationale, we have learned that not considering a candidate’s approach to foreign policy can leave us blindsided.  But in 2016 specifically, those who voted for Trump made a huge mistake in assuming that his “America First” propaganda was just bluster and that he would surround himself with advisors to whom he would listen.  We have had inexperienced presidents in the past.  George W Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all considered novices on the world stage but we looked to those with whom they surrounded themselves as reassurance that experienced professionals would be there to advise.  In each of those cases, we just assumed (correctly), that our president would listen to those advisors and act in the best interests of the country.

In foreign policy, commitments matter, perhaps more so than in our individual daily lives.  When we negotiate arms reduction treaties with countries, we are promising to limit our ability to attack each other and thereby both parties are limiting the ability to defend themselves.  That takes a huge leap of faith.  Trust and follow through are paramount in these arrangements not just to the parties involved in the agreement but to every other nation in the world seeking to negotiate with us.  If we fail to adhere to an agreement with any country – even the small ones – it can and will be seen to others as a breach of faith.

This is one of the reasons why withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and doing it with such bluster was grossly irresponsible.  America made a promise.  We can discuss executive action, non-binding agreements versus treaties all day long but the duly elected POTUS (Obama) made a promise to the world and the next president said, “You know what?  I do not care about this guy’s promise, nor do I care that he did it on behalf of the United States of America.  I did not agree, think it was “the worst” so I’m withdrawing.”  That is not how the world operates.

But Paris is over and done, at least for now.  Hopefully, the Trump Administration is also “done” well before the 2020 election and we are able to right the ship.

The more immediate concern is the upcoming October 15 recertification of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement.  Trump is threatening NOT to re-certify, even though Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement.  To catch everyone up on the particulars:

  • This is yet another “legacy” item from the Obama Administration.  It was negotiated as a non-binding agreement of sorts, not as a treaty so it did not need Senate approval.   Republicans were 100% opposed to the agreement and even some Democrats were displeased with the President’s approach.
  • The agreement addressed Iran’s nuclear capabilities only.  All other weapons capabilities were taken off the table.  That is why Iran’s recent ballistic missile testing is a point of contention.  Trump wants to use it as a violation of the “spirit” of the agreement when ballistic missile testing was never on the table to negotiate.
  • The goal of the nuclear agreement was to slow Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Experts believed that the program was within a year to eighteen months of obtaining a nuclear warhead or having some level of capability.  The international community had applied robust sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy, bringing them to the negotiation table in the first place.  When the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August 2013 he brought with him a more moderate perspective and willingness to negotiate thus kickstarting talks on sanctions relief.
  • The deal is not perfect, but it is unwise to base an opinion solely on Republican or Democratic talking points.  Instead, I suggest reviewing white papers and longer assessments from people that actually negotiate for a living or work in nuclear energy.  The Brookings Institute offered a fairly balanced perspective on the agreement.
  • You may remember right before the election that billions of dollars were released back to Iran.  The optics created a firestorm and the Obama Administration did a poor job of communicating the reason for the release and the timing thereof, trying not to tie it to the release of hostages.  These were assets that had been frozen as part of the original sanctions and yes, there did seem to be confusion about whether hostage release was contingent upon release of the money.  Overall, it was just bad optics and poor communication, right before the election.

As part of the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is allowed to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities every 90 days and signatory countries, of which the United States is one, must certify its findings.  The idea that the United States might not certify, even if the IAEA and the other participating nations (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United Nations) do sign, puts us in an incredibly awkward and untenable position in the eyes of the international community.  There will be negative consequences to our actions and those consequences will be felt for decades to come – they will not be confined to this administration.

There are serious long-term implications if we are seen as a world superpower that does not keep its commitments.  Donald Trump will not be viewed as a mere “blip” on the historical arch and will not be something the next president and secretary of state can simply wave off and apologize for when forty-five leaves office.  Not living up to our obligations is like defaulting on a loan – if you are even able to get a loan in the future, it usually is not on the best terms.  How can we expect other nations to negotiate with us in good faith if we have a track record of reneging if the next administration decides America got a “bad deal?”

We are currently sitting at a precipice with North Korea.  We need China to engage as an honest broker in order to diffuse a situation that our president continues to intensify.  We need Japan and South Korea to maintain their alliance with the United States and we need Russia to remain on the sidelines.  Speaking of Russia, we must maintain our friendships with our NATO allies to isolate the Kremlin until Putin decides to act responsibly on the world stage.  In short, we need a lot from our friends and our friends need a lot from us.  But unlike previous generations, our friends are not totally reliant on us for survival.  They can go elsewhere, and that would be bad for us despite what the President says.

Despite the nonsense emanating from the White House, America cannot be great if she has no friends and just like our personal and professional relationships, friends come from maintaining consistency and commitments.  Continuing the threats to pull out of this or that agreement hurts us much more than everyone else and the fact that Trump and his supporters do not realize that is pathetic.  If we are ever to get out of this North Korean nightmare, the world needs to believe us when we sign our name to an agreement.  Right now, nobody believes anything coming out of the White House.  That matters.


Breaking Iran Deal Could Bring Hacking Onslaught From Iran
Trump Has No Good Reason to Scrap the Iran Deal
Iran Nuclear Deal:  Key Details (BBC)

(If you want the other side on this one, you will have to Google it yourself)

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